The Most Pressing Issues in Airport Wi-Fi…

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Now that nearly 50% of all cellphone owners are carrying smartphones (Nielsen), more and more travelers have Wi-Fi enabled devices at the ready to fill any and every lull in their travel day with entertainment and information. Couple that with the explosion of tablets like Apple’s popular iPad or Amazon’s Fire — or even more specialized devices like Nintendo’s 3DS handheld game console — and there are more and more devices looking for connectivity options to maintain a traveler’s digital lifestyle.

But what does this mean for airport administrators?

Boingo’s CTO recently co-hosted a discussion with John Payne, former CIO for San Francisco International Airport, about the most pressing issues surrounding airport Wi-Fi service.  Administrators should consider each of these issues to ensure their planning accounts for the dramatic growth and increased risks on the horizon, and in many cases that have already begun to play out in their airports today. Check out the video posted here to hear it for yourself, or keep reading for a quick summary.

1. Explosive growth through offload: One of the hottest phrases in telecom today is “mobile data offload” which is a fancy way of saying that cellphone service providers are looking for ways to relieve the burden placed on their cellular networks by the explosive demand in mobile data usage. Especially in high-density locations like airports, users can place a significant burden on a network causing decreased performance due to network congestion. Since Wi-Fi capacity scales easily in this type of environment, much of that data will shift from the mobile network to the Wi-Fi network within airports. Boingo believes that an initial estimate for offload can run close to 20 times the load seen with a traditional paid network and up to four times what might be seen in a free-to-consumer network — with additional growth every year thereafter. With load growth that high, overall Wi-Fi network performance can be easily overrun if annual budgets can’t accommodate the year-over-year cost increases to support the accelerating demand. If you’re operating Wi-Fi as an amenity, you’ll need to dig deep to find funds to support the growth; if you’re using a third-party service provider, their fees need to be able to cover the costs associated with supporting this meteoric growth, regardless of whether they’re charging travelers or the airport directly .

2. Security risks are on the rise: With the increased Wi-Fi usage comes increased risk, both to users and to the network itself. Perhaps the bellwether for the trend was the launch of Firesheep late in 2010. This browser plug-in took what had previously been a tedious task undertaken by hackers with well-developed skills and turned it into a point-and-click task for anyone who could download the add-on for the Firefox browser.  Firesheep makes it easy to “sidejack” user sessions on open public Wi-Fi networks, so the hacker can take control of a users Facebook or email account in a matter of seconds.  Hackers also see the network itself as an easy target to exploit. As network usage grows, administrators will need to redouble efforts to ensure the network remains secure, and users are notified of the risks. The good news is that the Wi-Fi industry is moving towards unified standards for roaming authentication that would activate a WPA2-encrypted session for each user, eliminating the risk to the individual user. But since the standards are still evolving, and trials are set for later this year, so it could be some time before this becomes a universal solution. Administrators should keep abreast of the technical advances, or rely on a network provider that is actively engaged in the standards/trials process to make sure they’re on the front end of this curve.

3. Legal liabilities:  This may be the biggest wild card. The trend here has shifted toward an increase in reporting obligations and legal liabilities. Due to potential terrorist activities, copyright infringement, child pornography distribution and other illegal activities that may put public networks at risk of records subpoena or worse, the degree to which users can be identified can directly affect liability — or perceived liability for those illegal acts. Ironically, a law firm representing a porn production company has started filing lawsuits against people whose open, free Wi-Fi networks were used to download their movie using BitTorrent, claiming that their negligence in securing their network led to copyright theft violations by others. Some parties have paid high settlement fees in order to avoid a protracted courtroom battle and the associated legal fees. Even without third parties filing lawsuits, there are an increasing number of governmental regulations and reporting requirements that have the potential to keep network operators busy with information requests.

The net-net of Niels’ and John’s discussion was that operating a public Wi-Fi network has become increasingly complex, with an explosive demand for services, elevated security risks and a noticeable rise in liabilities and reporting obligations. Ensuring that your internal team is aware of the changing landscape is the first step to mitigating exposure. If budgets are tight or resources are thin, managed service providers who specialize in wireless data services may be able to offload that burden and deliver reliability, security and compliance.

About Melody Demel

Melody is Senior Manager, PR for Boingo Wireless, where she is responsible for media relations, brand building and thought leadership initiatives. Melody is a die-hard Nebraska Cornhuskers fan and retired NCAA DI college field hockey player.
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